Jeff Merkley, Bernie Sanders: Feds should keep fossil fuels in the ground

Oregon Jeff Merkley is joining Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in calling for a halt to new oil, natural gas and coal leases on federal lands and in coastal waters.

The two will unveil  legislation Wednesday designed to radically reduce the production of fossil fuels, which they say is necessary to prevent dangerous levels of global warming.

“We need to drive this understanding that for us to be good stewards of our planet, we must keep in the ground the vast majority of fossil fuel reserves,” Merkley, a Democrat, said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday.  He argued that public lands and waters offer the easiest target for accelerating the movement away from a carbon-based economy.

Merkley acknowledged that he and Sanders — who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination — have little chance of persuading the Republican leadership of Congress to move their legislation.

But Merkley said he hoped the dramatic proposal would spark debate in the upcoming campaign season and build support for a “keep it in the ground” proposal once thought as unthinkable for the nation’s most widely used energy reserves.

“This is a test of human civilization on the planet,” Merkley said.  “This is the first generation to be substantially impacted by global warming and it is a problem you cannot address effectively if you postpone action into the future. So we have a moral compulsion to act now.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has expressed concern about climate change.  But her spokesman, Robert Dillon, said Murkowski rejects efforts like Merkley’s bill that could raise energy prices.

“Simply saying no is not going to solve our energy needs,” said Dillon, noting that it could also hurt the country’s national security and deprive the federal government of billions of dollars of revenue from leases.

Ever since winning re-election last November, Merkley has been increasingly vociferous about what he says is the need to keep most fossil fuel unused if the world is to avoid a rise in temperature of 2 degrees Celsius, which many scientists cite as a dangerous tipping point.

As he has in the past, Merkley said that 80 percent of fossil fuels should stay in the ground, an estimate more aggressive than made in some studies.  A study published in Nature this year said one third of oil, one-half of gas and 80 percent of coal should stay in the ground.  The International Energy Agency said in 2012 that two-thirds of fossil fuels need to remain unused.

Merkley’s staff said his numbers are taken from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and use curbs on fossil fuels that provide high odds of avoiding a 2 degrees Celsius increase.

Despite differences over numbers, the idea that most of the world’s fossil fuels must remain unused is becoming a rallying cry for environmentalists and accepted by a growing number of political leaders.

Merkley said his legislation would allow existing federal energy leases to remain in effect.  But new leases would be prohibited on federal lands or off-shore waters.

When asked if reducing fossil fuel production on federal lands would simply shift production to private land or foreign sources, Merkley said:

“One of the arguments against acting has been that any given action around the world will simply shift production elsewhere. If all of the world takes that philosophy, then nobody acts and our planet is destroyed. The alternative is to say, ‘Let’s take leadership’ and set an example where we can.”

The Oregon senator particularly highlighted his efforts to cut off oil and gas production in the Arctic seas off the north Alaska coast.

Shell Oil announced in September that it was abandoning exploration in the Chuckchi and Beaufort seas after it spent more than $7 billion and had a face-off with Greenpeace demonstrators in Portland who temporarily blocked one of the company’s ships.

The Obama administration canceled further lease sales off the state’s northern coast.  Merkley said his legislation would also prohibit new off-shore leases, including on the Gulf coast where oil and gas production is particularly heavy.

Bill McKibben, a well-known climate change activist and writer, joined Merkley on the conference call and said that “these public lands are one of the easiest places for us to control the flow of carbon into the atmosphere.”